The French Deadlock

Decline or Renewal? France Since the 1930s

by Stanley Hoffmann
Viking, 529 pp., $15.00

The immediate question that the election of the new president of France poses is: what difference will it make? It is important, in answering, to distinguish between the superficial and the deeper results.

No country throws out more smoke screens around itself than France. No other country has a history in which revolution has so often been proclaimed and so regularly avoided or reversed. The French like to claim that clarity of thought and expression is their favorite virtue, but that is precisely because they are so conscious of the complexity of life and of their own lives in particular. So it should not be surprising that the new president’s polices are surrounded by ambiguities and that the electorate’s verdict has not been a simple one.

The end of Gaullism—which Giscard-d’Estaing has dismissed as “a moment in French history”—has not clarified matters. Nor has the attempt to present the election as a straightforward fight between left and right—labels which are sources of one of the oldest smoke screens of all, though an invariably popular one, because of its unfailing power of intoxication. These are terms of self-identification or of abuse which conceal a multitude of divergencies; their revival, indeed, is a warning that old habits die hard.

All three major candidates in the election nevertheless promised change. Chaban-Delmas held out the prospect of a “New Society.” Mitterand offered a clean sweep of personnel, a chance of power for that large section of the population that has been excluded from it for so long. Even Giscard, while simultaneously appealing to the conservatives, declared that the message he had got from the electors was that they wanted “profound change, but without risks.” France used to be distinguished by an obstinately reactionary minority, openly seeking a return to the past. Now the vast majority of those who call themselves right wing fully accept industrial society, with growth as its aim: Giscard has even added to this the old radical catch phrases of “justice” and “equal opportunity.”

There are however constraints on possible change, and these are to be found not in the party programs but in much deeper forces. French politics have always been firmly rooted in history and now no less than before. Professor Stanley Hoffmann is fully justified in seeking an answer to the riddle of France’s future in an analysis of its vicissitudes over the last forty years. How alive this history is was recently demonstrated by the violent emotions produced by the showing of the film The Sorrow and the Pity about the Vichy regime. Mr. Hoffmann’s brilliant, judicious, and penetrating commentary on this film, reproduced here, makes especially evident his peculiar qualifications as an analyst of France.

He has been through the French educational system, but he was something of an outsider in it; he has a lifetime’s knowledge of France, but he is also detached from it; and he studies France in an international setting, which native Frenchmen seldom do. It is a pleasure to read someone so consistently clever, and all the more when he is always elegant in his style, balanced in his judgments, and highly informative even to those who might consider themselves to be familiar with his subject: This collection of fourteen essays, though produced over as many years, comes out surprisingly coherent and forceful. It is a very superior book.

The kernel of Mr. Hoffmann’s message is that France has, over the period he studies, modernized itself in very fundamental ways, but that this modernization has been carried out under encouragement from a state which has itself avoided reform. In the place of nostalgia for artisanal methods, aristocratic values, and rhetorical pseudo solutions, France has set its course in the direction of economic expansion: it has given a major role to its industrialists and technocrats. But this new policy and these new leaders have been impregnated by a number of ineradicable traditions. The power of the state and the centralization of its decision making have been vastly reinforced, despite illusory concessions to regionalism; the bureaucracy maintains a style of authority which keeps it the ultimate arbiter.

Participation in both government and industry has been only marginally advanced. Three quarters of people answering a public opinion poll said they felt they had no influence on the state, and public opinion manifests itself mainly by protest. Foreign policy has returned to the Bonapartist tradition of enhancing national self-esteem. Even in the state’s economic planning, the profit motive has been subordinated to considerations of prestige. Despite all the lip-service paid to the principle of justice, France preserves inequalities of the most formidable kind. Mr. Hoffmann’s conclusion is that until the bureaucratic style of authority is eliminated both from the state and from business, and until the educational system, which instills acceptance of it, is drastically overhauled, there can be no fundamental change. The outcome of the presidential election is therefore not as portentous as it may appear to be. The presence of the communists in the left alliance meant that bureaucratic authority was unlikely to be affected by its victory, just as the technocratic element in Giscard’s following would equally ensure its survival.

The following passage from Mr. Hoffmann’s book illustrates the depth of the problem:

The French style of authority rules out participation. Instead of solving conflicts in cooperation and through compromises, individuals and groups refer the conflicts to a higher, central authority that is held responsible for the outcome. The results of this attitude are, first, centralization; second, a brittleness in the voluntary associations to which the individual belongs—their function is essentially to protect him from possible arbitrariness higher up, to promote his “public” interests, while refraining from impinging on his independence as a private individual; third, an oscillation between two forms of behavior—semiclandestine pressuring of higher authority for special advantages, for a more “understanding” enforcement of the rules, or for the preservation of privileges, or else vocal protest when protection from above is removed; fourth, the preservation of the individual’s own capacity to protest.

The range of the individual’s attitudes goes from apathy to resistance, with distrust coloring the whole spectrum. The lack of participation means that decisions are made by a small number of men (the bureaucrats and legislators, in the case of the political system); centralization means that they will try to preserve their privilege of making decisions alone; permanent distrust and latent resistance lower down mean that the subjects will try to limit this privilege by surrounding the decision-makers’ competence with legal restrictions and themselves with vested rights; it also means that they will protest as soon as they think that arbitrariness has occurred at the top, or even in the associations to which they belong, in the expectation of being thereby more effectively protected against higher authority.

Normally, conflicts between individuals in a group or between groups will be much less resolved than stifled, “arbitrated,” perhaps temporarily assuaged, and quite likely perpetuated, by resort to higher authority. When protest occurs, it often expresses the same institutional intolerance of conflict in reverse, through demands for radical and definitive settlement or through dreams of frictionless harmony.

This description fits the behavior of businessmen or unionists who prefer to leave the settlement of labor problems to the government, and who are prompt to blame the government for any bad turn in la conjoncture. It fits the behavior of schoolteachers’ unions which both demand and resist reform from the Ministry of Education. It also fits the model of political behavior proposed by Alain: the citizen is not a militant; he wants to be left alone; he abandons decisions to elites he distrusts and leaves the task of supervising those elites to representatives whom he also distrusts. [Pages 121-122]

Mr. Hoffmann is the inventor of the phrase the Stalemate Society, which he used to describe France before the 1930s. In 1962, he declared “the Stalemate Society is dead.” But he recognized that a “residue” of it remained as an obstacle to modernization, and already at that date he pointed to the very same factors which, with further elaboration, he continues to see as the reason why France has been unable to introduce genuine popular participation in its running. He criticized the schools for producing “the kind of individual who tends to be an island, who has been provided with a mind so sharp and critical that he can push arguments until any relation to reality is a coincidence and any chance of accommodation with other people’s arguments a miracle.” The events of 1968 confirmed his analysis. The reforms which followed them have been largely abortive. As Mr. Hoffman writes:

Even though, in recent years, equality of opportunity has actually increased in the school system, this “democratization” does not lead to equality of results. Ascent to the top remains exceptional and is more of an ordeal than it was. Moreover, the devaluation of school degrees—which mass education produces just as inflation devalues the currency—gives better chances for access to the elite to the already privileged sons of grands bourgeois, who have inherited assets that offset the devaluation; and this offsets the gain in equality of opportunity. At a time when the transformation of society in advanced industrial countries tends to erode old class barriers and replace them with status differences and symbolic discriminations, the stratification characteristic of the French style of authority perpetuates class barriers. [Page 463]

This suggests a number of observations.

The Third Republic appeared to be a stalemate society because, above all, it seemed to make economic growth impossible. More recent research has shown, however, that France’s economic “backwardness” had been exaggerated. Economic growth had occurred in the stalemate society but it had taken place in certain sectors, in certain regions. The French automobile industry, for example, had the highest production in the world until 1904, the highest exports until 1914, and it still led Europe up to 1930. The north and the south of the country behaved in markedly dissimilar ways. What distinguished this old France was its cellular structure, so that different parts of it could lead independent lives and follow different courses simultaneously. Against this, the politicians and the teachers worked hard to impose a national unity, which was, however, achieved only very partially. Tocqueville has given currency to the myth of the French state as omnipotent, destroying intermediary bodies; and the intellectuals have spread the idea that schooling—to which they owe so much—is an all-powerful influence on behavior.

To call this society stalemated is to imply that it failed, but it is by no means certain that it did so, judged by its own criteria. It was a society which aimed not at over-all growth but at the satisfaction of individual ambitions; its structure was exactly suited to this; and it was not as unadaptable as the word stalemate suggests. Mr. Hoffmann himself recognizes that the origins of recent modernization are to be found less in new forces than in a redirection of forces already present. Most of the senior civil servants and leading businessmen who had helped to run the Vichy regime survived the purges of the liberation in 1944-1945 to become the ruling elite of postwar France. Mr. Hoffmann’s analysis is admirably fair—but his epigrammatic label may cause his reservations to be forgotten.

The Stalemate Society has been succeeded by the Stalled Society (la Société Bloquée), as it has been called by Michel Crozier (and his book of that title, as well as his excellent study of The Bureaucratic Phenomenon, must be read parallel with Mr. Hoffmann’s). The question now is how France is to get out of its rut. Mr. Hoffmann offers a diagnosis and prescription, but he does not explain how he expects the patient to accept treatment. Unilateral disarmament by the state of its bureaucratic powers and a complete change of habits by the teachers are not immediately foreseeable. One may question indeed whether education reforms can any longer be considered a necessary preliminary to all other reforms. It is the entire notion of education that will need to be rethought.

The French experiments in “continuing education” have shown the difficulty of reconciling the concerns of even the most openminded university reformers and the vocational interests of the workers: there have been long drawn out negotiations with the trade unions. M. Crozier has suggested that new social science techniques and “institutional investment”—meaning new approaches to organization and management—need to be used to break the deadlock, but these ideas have still to be worked out in detail. Another possible instrument of leverage is the regionalist movement, except that at present it is both weak and full of contradictions; but if Europe is ever united politically, Brittany, Provence, and Alsace may well win more autonomy. It would be interesting to know Mr. Hoffmann’s views on this.

Mr. Hoffmann recognizes that the French family—in rapid evolution—may perhaps be a more fundamental source of new attitudes than the political reforms on which he concentrates, but he does not develop this theme. This book already has so much in it that one can hardly complain that it does not cover even more ground; but this seems to be a subject he is well placed to bring within the scope of political science. His illuminating study of de Gaulle (written in collaboration with Inge Hoffmann) shows how wide his range is. It is symbolic that the aspect of de Gaulle’s background which remains most obscure is his relationship with his mother, an offspring of that peculiarly French category, the northern business family. One should not forget that the basis of France’s economic revival was its population explosion, which began around 1942, but no one has yet explained satisfactorily why suddenly the French—or at least many French people—began having large families after a century of being satisfied with an only son. It was the vote of women, traditionally more conservative, that decisively affected the balance in the recent election.

Mr. Hoffmann ends on a cautious, almost pessimistic note, prophesying “new turbulence and tribulations.” The recent extraordinarily close election confirms that grave difficulties face the new president. He is going to attempt a policy which is at once conservative and reformist; he will have to keep his own very varied supporters satisfied while he does this, but somehow also not drive the 49 percent of the electors who voted against him into an obstinate resistance, for example, prolonged strikes, which could easily make his victory a Pyrrhic one. But whatever form the new drama takes, it looks as though the classical rules, described here, will be, despairingly, observed.

Because, by accident, this book is published at a particularly critical political moment, it is inevitable that many readers will turn to it above all for enlightenment about the new government. But, apart from its topical interest, the book is also a scholarly contribution to modern history. No discussion of the Third Republic, Vichy, or de Gaulle will be able to ignore its ingenious and provocative interpretations, too numerous to be easily summarized. Mr. Hoffmann has produced a cool and powerful aperitif which can be guaranteed to stimulate heated arguments about both the past and the future of France.